Prophets of Past Time

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Although biography as a literary genre has enjoyed a long and distinguished history and criticism, autobiography is a relative newcomer as the object of critical inquiry. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, however, the notion that autobiography is a distinct genre that deserves its own critical theory and inquiry became firmly established, leading to a considerable library of studies. As a genre, autobiography shares certain features with fiction: character, setting, and narrative structure or “plot.” From another perspective, however, autobiography may be regarded as a species of history, since the events it reports are purportedly true and the settings and people it describes actual or real. The student of autobiography shares the concerns of the literary critic and historiographer.

The key element in autobiography as history or fiction is memory—that peculiarly human faculty whose nature and operation has itself been the subject of inquiry since the speculations of Plato and Aristotle. Theories of memory are as numerous as other epistemological ideas, and the period covered by Carl Dawson’s book was particularly fertile, with thinkers as diverse as William James, Henri Bergson, and Sigmund Freud actively contemplating its nature and operation. Most pertinent to the seven writers examined in this book is the relatively obscure Charles Bland Radcliffe, whose Proteus; Or, The Law of Nature (1850) set the tone and terms of British debate about memory for a generation. Essentially a Platonist, Radcliffe regarded memory as “the enabling process, reducing the gulf between matter and spirit, man and nature, man and himself.” In other words, memory is not a mechanical process but a subjective one; memory and imagination are essentially the same faculty. As such, memory is associated with personal identity and creativity, an idea widely adopted, Dawson claims, by writers active at the end of the nineteenth century. Such an idea has numerous ramifications and implications, among them the need for the autobiographer or novelist to construct a narrative whole from a fragmented past by an act of the imagination. “Truth” in such a situation is not necessarily literal.

The first two writers Dawson considers, William Hale White and George Tyrrell, belong in a group with Samuel Butler and Edmund Gosse—writers who regard their past with anxiety, a sense of unredeemed sin. White presents an especially interesting study of the boundaries between autobiography and fiction, since his novels The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford (1881) and Mark Rutherford’s Deliverance (1885) are clearly autobiographical, while his autobiography, The Early Life of Mark Rutherford (1913), uses his fictional name in place of his real one. The product of a strict family of dissenting Protestants, White presents himself almost as an orphan, so scanty is information about his family. For young White, William Wordsworth is both mentor and tempter—seductively appealing in his love of nature but false in his worldly philosophy. In White’s view, life is a spiritual struggle akin to that of the biblical Job, lacking the sense of spiritual progress found in John Bunyan or Saint Augustine. Father George Tyrrell, unlike White, was in fact fatherless, an important factor in his conversion to Roman Catholicism and in his entry into the Jesuits. Tyrrell’s spiritual odyssey is as troubled as White’s, leading first to a series of publications criticizing his church and later to his expulsion from it. These conflicts are part of a continuous struggle of identity, as Tyrrell muses over the disparities between his “then self” and his “now self.” For him, conventional autobiography would be easy but untrue.

Samuel Butler presents a problem like that of White: Is The Way of All Flesh (1903) autobiography or fiction? Dawson regards it finally as the former and traces its development and theme against the background of Butler’s now largely forgotten forays into anti-Darwinian evolutionary theory. Seeking a nonmechanistic explanation for evolution, Butler postulates a “pervading power of memory” as the director of change. Such a memory is not unlike the “racial memory” of Jungian psychology. For Dawson, Butler is a modern writer chiefly because he is uncertain of his own identity, and The Way of All Flesh is a search for Ernest’s (that is, Butler’s) individual identity against the background of a deterministic collective memory. Indeed, the very notion of a private, individual life is difficult to defend in the light of Butler’s evolutionary theory. Epistemological difficulties lie behind the unsatisfactory design of what is nevertheless a great book.

Critic and man of letters Edmund Gosse is remembered today solely for his autobiography, Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments (1907). Like Arthur Schopenhauer and Charles Darwin, Gosse saw life as a continual and largely tragic struggle. To avoid becoming the hero of his own book, an idea at odds with his pessimistic view of life and himself, Gosse claims to be writing...

(The entire section is 2091 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Choice. XXVI, October, 1988, p. 312.